Subject to Interpretation: the 2013 Hugo Nominated Short Stories

August 1, 2013 at 3:17 am | Posted in Science Fiction, Short Stories | 8 Comments
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It’s mere hours from the Hugo voting deadline, but I didn’t want to let this year pass without writing something about the Hugo awards. The short story ballot proved an irresistible topic, since for procedural reasons that need not detain us, only three short stories were nominated. Despite much hand-wringing over the years about narrow Hugo voter pool, the short story ballot often has a surprising variety to it. In one sense that’s not the case this year, as all three stories feel very modern (there’s no Analog-style story, for example) and they all represent what might be called the sociological strand of science fiction. But despite their surface similarities the stories provide a remarkable contrast in a specific quality, interpretive freedom, that I’ve been thinking about lately.

The best place to start is probably the story in the middle of the spectrum, Aliette de Bodard’s story “Immersion”. Published in Clarkesworld, it’s been nominated for nearly every relevant award and won the Locus and the Nebula. Each new success for the story has been the occasion of some soul-searching on my part, because every time I read this story (and I’ve gone back to it three times now) I really don’t like it. Oh, it’s well-enough written, sure, but as the title implies, the speculative key to the story is the immerser concept, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. Quy spends the story showing us that immersers enforce conformity in an foreign culture. Yet Longevity Station seems to be something of a tourist trap. Galactic tourists are there to see the local culture, and they wear immersers that will allow them to understand native idiom, customs, gestures, and so forth. Why would a man running a restaurant that sells native food to tourists want to look Galactic? Basically, I can understand if immersers force the Galactic culture on non-Galactics who feel obligated to use them because because Galactic culture is perceived as higher status than native culture. And I can understand if Galactics use immersers to, you know, immerse in an “exotic” culture without having to actually understand it. But I don’t understand how these two seemingly contradictory things are said to be happening at the same time, in the same place, in the story.

It’s not that there’s no way to rationalize this. The restaurant could be intentionally inauthentic, or alternatively might present an exaggerated, stereotyped conception of native culture. But the story doesn’t seem to acknowledge this issue at all. Instead, it announces that you can’t take “a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms”, an uncontroversial stance but one that seems to undercut what happens to Agnes. If culture is not an algorithm, why is the immerser capable of completely destroying her mind? Or maybe Galactic culture (but not the rich, authentic native culture) is reducible to an algorithm? But then why doesn’t the immerser make Agnes a fully functional Galactic-cultured person? The implication is that turning your back on your authentic identity destroys your very soul, leaving you an empty husk. That’s certainly alarming and even poignant, but it’s not, you know, true. Maybe people immersed in an foreign culture sometimes feel like they’re losing their soul, but whatever it is that actually happens is something far more subtle. It would be good to read a story about that, and it even turns out there’s one on the ballot, but this is not that story.

To judge from the Internet, I am in the minority on all this, to put it mildly. Now maybe I should dismiss this with the usual handwaving about how there’s just no accounting for taste, but while reading other reviews I noticed an interesting difference in concerns. As an example of the story’s enthusiasts, here’s Jonathan McCalmont’s endorsement of the story for the Hugo in its entirety:

“Immersion” is a perfect example of what 21st Century science fiction should be doing. Set on an alien world where the natives use technology to make their perceptions and reactions more hospitable to tourists, the story uses a science fictional conceit to explore the psychological legacy of Western colonialism. Elegant, concise and imbued with slow-burning rage, “Immersion” articulates what it is like to grow up in a culture that has internalised the racial prejudices of its colonial oppressors to the point where people hate not only their own skin but their own culture too.

For someone who feels similar to me, here’s an excerpt from Martin Petto’s sharply negative review of the story:

It is a complacent and overly familiar treatment of technology and one that is reflected in the glibness of the plot. Agnes is saved from mental incarceration simply by Quy saying “you have to take it off”. Doctors have been unable to do anything for Agnes but have not had Quy’s internal self-knowledge and personal connection. So spiritualism is prioritised over science and all sorts of bullshit short, sharp shock theories of the treatment of addiction are validated.

What’s interesting about these two quotes is that if we leave aside Jonathan’s prescriptive first sentence, I don’t think they disagree. I can’t speak for Martin, but certainly I can’t find a lot to disagree with in Jonathan’s summary of the story’s positives. He’s praising the story for what it is saying. Elsewhere Martin mentions he is fine with what the story is saying, but he doesn’t like the way it says it. Jonathan is of course not writing an expansive review, but his entire treatment of technology in the story is an offhand reference to it as a “conceit”. Martin’s review is like my own comments above in that it’s centered on the function of technology within the story.

At the risk of overanalyzing this, I’ll go farther and say that Jonathan appears to be praising the story for its ability to allow its (frequently, though not exclusively) privileged readers to empathize with the position of a minority culture. The business about space stations and immersers is just a means to producing a psychological effect. Martin acknowledges the psychological effect but complains that the story uses shallow and unnecessarily technophobic means to achieve it. My own concerns amount to the objection that the story’s speculative details don’t actually add up to the picture it’s painting, likely because the author was more interested in the psychological effect Jonathan praises than the way she was getting there.

At this point, it would be traditional for me to argue that my own reading of the story is the right one. Science fiction should be about science, why introduce immersers as a technology if you don’t work out what they would really mean, just write a fantasy story if the only role genre plays is filing the serial numbers off Earth cultures to get people to drop their preconceptions, etc. I’m sure you’ve heard those arguments before. But I don’t actually think Jonathan and the people who like this story are wrong, they’re just interested in different things than I am. Or really, they are most interested in different things, since I still care about what the story says and they still care about how it says it. The point is, even though there’s only one story, there’s (at least) two valid readings of it.

That’s not an uncommon observation, but usually having made it, people stop. Every reader is different, every reading is valid, and isn’t that wonderful? But this year’s Hugo ballot is instructive, I think. Stories aren’t a completely blank slate for the reader and they do not support an unlimited number of valid readings. Some stories are more open to interpretation than others, and this is mostly due to the artistic choices of the author.

“Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu originally appeared in the anthology The Future is Japanese but has been reprinted by Lightspeed magazine. Liu is best known for his award-winning “Paper Menagerie”, a story that I found impressively manipulative. “Mono No Aware” is not quite as extreme in this respect, but again Liu demonstrates very strong control over the reader’s reactions. In terms of plot, there’s nothing much new here. Asteroid catastrophes are well-trodden ground at this point, and the starship’s crisis ends up being yet another rehash of “The Cold Equations”. “Paper Menagerie” was criticized in some quarters for not being sufficiently speculative to be considered for speculative fiction awards. As if in answer to these criticisms, “Mono No Aware” has loads of speculative content…but it’s the same tropes we’ve all seen a thousand times, so once again the story stands or falls on the main character’s emotional journey as a mostly assimilated Asian immigrant. And stand it does, because Liu has a deft and nuanced touch with his main character. Compared to the shrill and enraged “Immersion”, “Mono No Aware” is thoughtful and melancholy. If Hiroto loses contact with his Japanese origins he won’t become a soulless zombie, “Mono No Aware” admits, but it would be a sad thing. And it’s not blind to the possibility he already has largely lost contact with his heritage, given how young he was when he was put on board an American spaceship. His memories of Japan, the real Japan, are just a child’s. Teaching American kids Go and reminiscing with his girlfriend about manga aren’t much of a substitute.

It probably hasn’t escaped you that my reaction to “Mono No Aware” sounds suspiciously similar to Jonathan McCalmont’s reaction to “Immersion”. Why, if I was more interested in the technology than the psychology of “Immersion”, can I turn around and praise “Mono No Aware” despite its boring and unoriginal speculative content? I think that Liu’s choice (conscious or not) to make his setting drab and familiar lets it fade into the background. By itself, the asteroid and starship material don’t help the story in any way, but they don’t hurt it either. Bodard’s comparatively more ambitious efforts focused my attention on immersers and away from the characters and how they felt. I wouldn’t go so far as saying there’s only one reading of “Mono No Aware” (with any science fiction story there is always someone, somewhere, who is mad about the science) but I think Liu leaves his readers much less room to maneuver. He wants us to think about a few ideas and experience a certain mental state (mono no aware, actually), and he doesn’t want us distracted by anything else.

If “Mono No Aware” allows the reader less interpretive freedom than “Immersion”, Kij Johnson’s “Mantis Wives” (also published by Clarkesworld) goes way, way in the opposite direction. “This is an interesting idea, but it isn’t actually a story,” was how Nicholas Whyte dismissed it, and he probably speaks for a lot of people. I had to go to the dictionary on this one. “An account of incidents or events,” is how Merriam-Webster defines the word “story”. It’s still not cut and dry but I think “The Mantis Wives” is, just barely, an account of incidents.

What we can say for sure is that whatever it is, “The Mantis Wives” takes place almost entirely in the reader’s mind. The text presents its framing concept and then runs through a set of very short vignettes, balancing the alienating elements of mantis biology with words that are only appropriate to human relationships (chiefly “wife” and “husband”, but also “man” and “woman”). It is left to the reader’s mind to perform the allegorical gymnastics required to get any meaning out of the story at all. It would be an overstatement to say that no two readers will end up with the same reading, but this story comes as close as possible at this length to realizing that cliché.

Reading the preceding paragraph without having read the story, one might conclude “The Mantis Wives” is diffuse, but in fact it’s the most tightly focused story on the ballot. Where “Mono No Aware” employed a bland, over-familiar setting and plot to keep attention on its narrator, “The Mantis Wives” excises setting and plot altogether. As readers we get the exact words, and only those words, that Johnson wants us to think about. But that’s as far as she goes. No matter what we might say about the death of the author, everyone reading “Immersion” and “Mono No Aware” will understand what the authors wanted to say, whether or not they agree with what they said or how they said it. Without employing supplementary information from outside the text, I don’t think it’s possible to reconstruct an authorial message from “The Mantis Wives”, and maybe not even then. Perhaps that’s the result of a miscalculation on Johnson’s part; that often happens when writers afraid of being preachy try to present what they think is the minimum information necessary to force readers to a conclusion. I think it’s more likely that she considers the story a success if it the reader thinks about its material, whatever their conclusions.

Despite having only two stories to choose from after ruling out “Immersion”, I had a tough time deciding what to put at the top of my ballot. I’m certainly sympathetic to the “not a story” complaint about “Mantis Wives”. Many times on this blog I’ve complained that supposedly award-worthy stories are too insubstantial to be worth reading at all. “Mood piece” has probably been my favorite insult. I understand, I would say proudly, that other readers think reading a few thousand words just to feel a hint of some emotion is worthwhile, but I want stories with characters, plot, and ideas!

Applying that criteria again seems like it would to put me with Nicholas and rank “Mantis Wives”, which everyone will agree had no characters or plot, under even “Immersion”. Yet…yet…it does strike a mood, sure, but more importantly, the ideas are there. Not developed all that far, certainly, but that’s inevitable at the story’s very short length. But the precision of the language impressed me, and the fact it ended up being more thought-provoking than many novels. “Mono No Aware”, by contrast, has characters, plot, and ideas…but for all that it’s really a mood piece. And I liked it anyway! All I can say to explain it is that Liu’s evocation of the mixed feelings of assimilated immigrants, both here and in “Paper Menagerie”, is a lot more interesting to me (and therefore satisfying) than your run-of-the-mill mood piece award nominee.

In the end, I decided to rank “Mantis Wives” first, on the probably silly grounds that it feels like more of a step forward for its author. “Mono No Aware” seems similar to, and perhaps a little weaker than, “Paper Menagerie”, whereas “Mantis Wives” seems like a distillation of Johnson’s previous experimental allegories like “Ponies” and “Spar” into the bare essentials. It’s not as gut-wrenching as those earlier efforts, but what it loses in shock value it makes up in elegance and subtlety. I call my reasoning silly, incidentally, not just because it involves factors outside of the stories themselves, but also because I haven’t read enough of either author’s work to be all that authoritative. At the very least, I’ll take a note to get Kij Johnson’s collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees closer to the top of my virtual to-read pile.

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E Lily Yu

May 26, 2012 at 3:02 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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This is the fifth and final short story nominated for this year’s Hugo awards. It was published by Clarkesworld and, as are all their stories, is freely available online.

It’s hard not to approach this story as being of a piece with George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Like that novel, this story involves animals that are cognitively but not physically anthropomorphic mirroring human political movements. The specialty of the wasps may be cartography, but in most other ways they act like an imperial monarchy of previous centuries. They concern themselves with scholarship and art, but all of it is channeled toward the glory of the state, and their sudden arrival and annexation of the native bees certainly recalls European colonialism. For their part, the bees are called a constitutional monarchy, but otherwise they are portrayed as an undeveloped culture completely outmatched by the wasps’ intellectual and martial arts. This all seems straightforward.

But any attempt to make this story a one-to-one allegory like Animal Farm stumbles when it comes to the role of humans in the story. Humans all but exterminate the wasps of Yiwei, causing the wasps who arrive in the bees territory to come as refugees, not conquistadors. That alone severely limits historical analogues: the modern state of Israel, the Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire, and even the ancient Sea Peoples come to mind as possibilities, but none of them fit very well, and none of them are compatible with the sudden removal of the wasps at the end of the story. Especially discordant is the fact that humans are incompetently exploiting the wasps just as the wasps competently exploit the bees, a minor irony that seems entirely without an antecedent.

If allegory fails us, so what? Most stories, most fantasy stories, even most storybook animal fantasy stories aren’t allegories. But without the allegory, what’s left in this particular case? A story that is beautifully written, has little in the way of characters, a plot that doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere, and a setting that combines what amounts to a joke about honeybee “anarchism” with a tepid critique of imperialism. I say tepid, incidentally, because the story seems to endorse anarchism while admitting it is a philosophy that requires the scholarship and rigor of the wasp culture to discover. Are we to conclude that their subjugation by the wasps was a useful and perhaps even necessary step in the evolution of bee society along some dialectic of political progress? Probably we are intended to draw our own conclusions, but I confess my conclusion is that the presence of all-powerful and capricious humans changes the calculus of geopolitics past any applicability.

But it is so beautifully written that it is still a joy to read, even if upon finishing I find it muddled and almost aimless. In this way it is the complete opposite of “Paper Menagerie”, meditative and discursive where that story was precise and driven. I said that “Paper Menagerie” had a surplus of artifice because the plot was so obviously contrived to put its characters in the strongest possible light. “The Cartographer Wasps…” has a surplus of what we might instead call craft, in that sentence by sentence and even paragraph by paragraph it is elegant and eloquent, the best written story on this year’s Hugo ballot in that sense. Whereas “Movement”, “Paper Menagerie”, and “Homecoming” all wanted to dictate how the reader should think and feel and “The Shadow War…” wanted to make the reader laugh, “The Cartographer Wasps…” just does its own thing and leaves the reaction, if any, to the reader’s complete discretion. As I said in relation to “Paper Menagerie”, this is how we tend to think stories should function: they should express whatever is on the author’s mind and let the reader’s chips fall where they may.

But I can’t help but feel that beneath its wonderful prose “The Cartographer Wasps…” is missing the humanity that “Paper Menagerie” evoked so aggressively. This isn’t just, or even mostly, because of the use of animals, although the tension between the human-like minds and the resolutely insect biology of the wasps and bees is something of a distraction. The bigger problem is that the characters in “The Cartographer Wasps…” are almost all fanatics of one stripe or another, from the imperialist wasps to the communitarian bees. The only character thinking about something other than ideals of governance is the third bee ambassador, and it’s no coincidence that scene is by far the best in the story.

I’m sure that on some years ballots this would have been my top story, and as it stands it only falls beneath “Paper Menagerie” by a hair. None of the nominated stories struck me as problem-free, nor do any make me want to run out and recommend people read them, but I’m afraid that this is a very normal state of affairs. It is more often among the novelettes that I find one or two stories that I can be genuinely enthusiastic about, so I’ll continue on to those stories soon.

“Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

May 25, 2012 at 11:27 am | Posted in Short Stories | 4 Comments
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This is the fourth of the five Hugo-nominated short stories. It was originally published by F&SF and is available online (PDF).

This is obviously a fantasy story, but I’d rather think of it as an exercise in meta-science fiction, because it seems like an excellent argument that someday human authors will go the way of Kasparov and Jennings and end up outclassed by artificial intelligence. No one likes to hear the talk, popular in screenwriting circles, that there are only 10 plots, or 11 characters, or any other quantification of story. Stories capture the human experience, and if they can be circumscribed by formula, so can our minds. Any time someone talks about story patterns that “work” or “don’t work” (I can speak from personal experience on this score) they can expect to hear from people telling them about this or that great work that doesn’t follow the rule in question, or even that all taste is subjective and thus there is no good or bad literature, just stuff one person likes and stuff that person doesn’t like. This is art, not science, they say. The artist doesn’t maximize a value function, they express their inner soul.

To those who feel this way, I would point you at this story. In a world where hundreds of thousands of stories are written every year, I’m sure at least a few of them were more calculated and emotionally manipulative (perhaps I should say more successfully calculated and manipulative, for even elewhere on this year’s ballot, both “Homecoming” and “Movement” wanted to be as emotionally manipulative, they just weren’t as successful). I suppose it sounds like I don’t like the story, because in our society “calculated” and “emotionally manipulative” are things you say about stories you don’t like. If you like the story, and I do like this story, then you’re supposed to describe the exact same attributes by calling it “effective”, “tragic”, “poignant”, and perhaps even “haunting”.

An obvious criticism of this story, especially in the context of the Hugo awards, is that the fantasy element is not very important. In fact, I would go so far as to call it completely unnecessary. Not only do I think the story would be just as a good if the magic was stripped out, I will go farther and say I think it would be better. While reading the story I spent at least a little time trying to work out the specifics of the origami magic system, and I think every moment not spent thinking about the central emotional conflict lessened, however minutely, its impact (but there I go talking about what works and doesn’t work again).

It’s the manner in which the details of the story seem strictly decoration for its emotional structure that made me think of artificial intelligence. The details of the mother’s difficulties assimilating into America and her son’s experience in school are far more important to the story than the magic paper, in that if they were removed they would definitely have to be replaced by something, but still it seems as though a completely different set of details could be swapped in and the story would function more or less as before, like new tires on a car or new lyrics to a song. It’s those details about the mother and son’s lives that are the recognizably human part of this story, the part that the idealist would say comes from the soul of Ken Liu, even if there’s absolutely no autobiography present. But this story, precisely because it is so effective, lets us glimpse something beneath those details that looks like a formula: a mother whose only real emotional connection in life is to son, her estrangement from that son through no fault of her own and plenty of his, and the son’s tragic realization of the error in his ways their eventual reconciliation that comes too late. Is the mother/son relationship even necessary, or can we further generalize this to an acquaintance with an emotional connection to the protagonist and so on?

I find that an interesting question, but I doubt many people reading this will, so I’ll move on. Sometimes, once your attention is drawn away from the art and to the craft, the attraction is gone. After we learn the clever trick behind a magician’s illusion, the act becomes boring. I don’t think that’s the case with “Paper Menagerie”. Yes, the author clearly worked very hard to manipulate the reader’s emotions. That strikes the modern mind as false, for authors are supposed to be expressing themselves, not manipulating their audience. Yet the story is effective, so effective that it easily overcomes the obstacle posed by the reader’s awareness of its artifice, because of the truth it contains. The circumstances might be contrived to heighten everything to an improbable degree, but nevertheless the problems faced by the mother and her son in “Paper Menagerie” are real problems we recognize from our own lives and the lives of those we know. I haven’t decided if it’s the best story on the ballot, but I think it simultaneously has the most artifice as well as the most truth.

“Movement” by Nancy Fulda

May 24, 2012 at 2:39 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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This is the third of five short stories nomianted for this year’s Hugo award. Originally published in Asimov’s, for now at least it is freely available on the author’s web site.

The people around you say you have a mental disability and want to “fix” you, but you don’t agree. That’s a bad situation, and it serves as the premise of “Movement”. Hannah is a girl growing up in the not-entirely-near future whose parents want to cure her of her sort-of-autistism. I say “sort-of” because the author has apparently invented an imaginary variant of autism for the story, something I feel weakens a story of this kind. No matter how successful the story is in making us reconsider our preconceptions about the character’s condition, it will have only convinced us about “temporal autism”, not autism as it actually exists. It’s not easy to talk about a story like this, since I personally don’t have any personal experience with autism and there are a lot of people online who do, including many who have reviewed this story already. Then again, I’ve seen examples of such people reacting to the story both very positively and very negatively. And as someone who rarely thinks about autism under normal circumstances, I suppose I’m really the intended audience for the story more than they are. Unfortunately I lean toward the negative camp.

My guess is that those in favor would say that stories that force us to confront issues like this, and especially those that enable us to empathize with those who think differently, are very valuable. I agree to a point, but any discussion of an autism cure makes me think of those families I have known dealing with schizophrenia. What do you do if a schizophrenic refuses to take anti-psychotic medication and cannot function as a result? The obvious objection here is that autism is extremely different from schizophrenia, and that’s true, but saying that is acknowledging that the specifics matter, and that when you change the specifics (say, from autism to “temporal autism”) then you might well change the answer.

Since I approach these questions this way, “Movement” left me cold, because the argument it makes is fundamentally an emotionally one. Viewed analytically, it actually advances two separate arguments. One of them is summed up metaphorically by the protagonist:

“No new shoes,” I say. “I couldn’t dance the same in new shoes.”

What this seems to be saying is that who-I-am-now is me, and that if you change who I am, I am no longer me, I am someone else. This is problematic. It seems equally effective as an argument against treating disorders like schizophrenia or even intoxication. Worse, it’s grounded in assumptions that are not true either biologically or philosophically. We are always changing, a fact repeatedly brought up in “Movement” but never taken to the obvious conclusion: there’s no point trying to defend the status quo because the status quo is an illusion. Everything is changing, so we must weigh which changes are desirable and which are not, presumably by their anticipated outcomes.

The story’s other argument is along these lines. Early on, a neurological specialist has this to say about the prospects of a patient with “temporal autism”:

Without treatment, some children like Hannah develop into extraordinary individuals. They become famous, change the world, learn to integrate their abilities into the structures of society. But only a very few are that lucky. The others never learn to make friends, hold a job, or live outside of institutions.

At the end of the story, Hannah’s monologue takes this as her final justification for refusing treatment:

I do not want to live small. I do not want to be like everyone else, ignorant of the great rush of time, trapped in frantic racing sentences. I want something else, something that I cannot find a word for.

If we take this argument further than the story’s brief summation, it seems to be saying that Hannah’s way of seeing the world is capable of generating unique insights, insights she would be denied if she was like everyone else. There’s an implicit utilitarian justification that while the chances are low, the payoff is great, making it worth the attempt. Temporal autism is like a lottery ticket, apparently, and if you win, you become a world-historical figure. If you lose, though, you’re not just out a few bucks, you live in an institution for the rest of your life. One is tempted to quibble with the specialist’s assertion, for surely we all have some small chance of becoming famous and changing the world? But even if we take it for granted, it’s a brutal argument. For those with the philosophical fortitude to relentlessly follow a utility function wherever it leads, it might make sense to seize on this small chance, but few live their lives that way. Most of us would rather avoid suffering the likely huge loss even if that means we miss out on that tiny chance of an even larger win.

There are probably excellent arguments against cures for autism, especially given the track record of “cures” in the history of mental health treatment, but I suspect most of them involve patient’s rights, not low probability outcomes (deontological instead of consequentialist reasoning, if you want to be technical). As for “Movement”, despite the fact I was unconvinced, it’s both well-written and thought-provoking, which is at least enough to elevate it over the Resnick and Scalzi stories it shares the ballot with (separated from them by “No Award”). Although I’ve read all the stories already, however, I’m still undecided as to how to rank this story and the remaining two I have yet to review.

“The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City” John Scalzi

May 23, 2012 at 12:48 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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This is the second of five short stories nominated for this year’s Hugo award. This one was published by Tor.com and is freely available online.

Hot on the heels of “Homecoming”‘s moral daring comes an even more risky story, in which Jon Scalzi enrages the fan community by…writing something funny. At least, that’s how he frames the situation in his post celebrating his nomination. The fan community is diverse enough that I’m sure he’s right, and that there are Very Serious Fans who will despise this story for daring to take the genre at anything less than face value, but then again I doubt there are very many. This is, after all, the same genre that venerates Terry Pratchett and which will still be celebrating Douglas Adams after we’re all dead even though Adams’ career involved the uneven distribution of about a novel’s worth of material across a dozen novels, screenplays, and radio scripts. Then again, Terry Pratchett has never won or, from what I can tell, even been nominated for a Hugo or Nebula (I had to double-check this astounding fact). Perhaps people just leave funny books off their ballot when it comes time to vote for awards even if they liked them better than what they’re actually voting for?

Scalzi’s story shouldn’t be penalized for being funny, but it probably should be penalized for not being funny enough. Published on April 1st, it was obviously intended to be a trifle working in a very long tradition of Bulwer-Lytton pastiches. It’s certainly amusing in places, but although short, it’s still quite a bit longer than the amount of humor justifies. Instead of going completely over the top, Scalzi tries to make some sort of point about the political uses of superstition, but there’s no room in such a short story for this to go anywhere.

I don’t read enough short fiction to know if this is the funniest genre short story published in 2011. So few humorous stories are published that I’m afraid it’s possible, but that’s a very low bar. That Scalzi got a nomination for a story that I’m sure he would admit is just a shadow of even Pratchett’s lesser work doesn’t, as he seems to think, undermine the oh-so-serious Hugo awards (I seem to remember any seriousness being fatally undermined by a certain nominee involving Ray Bradbury last year) or act as validation for genre humor. We all know what it really represents is validation of Scalzi’s popularity as a blogger. People often complain about this (especially after the 2009 Hugo nominations for Best Novel) but I don’t begrudge Scalzi his success. It’s extremely difficult to write a good blog (personally I can vouch for it even being difficult to write a bad one!). Writing good genre fiction that’s also humorous is, based on its rarity, something even more difficult, but I’d like to see more authors do it. Even though I’ll be ranking “No Award” higher than this story, I hope to see Scalzi write something along these lines that’s more substantial in the future.

“Homecoming” by Mike Resnick

May 22, 2012 at 2:21 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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Circumstances have prevented me from posting for a while so I’ve got a bunch of catching up to do.  First up is a look at the Hugo-nominated short stories.  This is the first year I’ll actually be voting, so this time I hope to read every piece of nominated fiction.  That’s a feat I’ve never come close to managing, so we’ll see how it goes.

During the voting period “Homecoming” is available for free online here (PDF).

In role-playing video games like those made by Bioware, the player frequently encounters someone dead set on some extreme proposition (a determination to fight to the death for their lost cause, for example), only to talk them into a reversal of this position with an argument that amounts to a single sentence.  In a video game, this is an understandable shorthand since the conversation is firmly in a supportive role in the wider set of gameplay mechanics.  In a short story, especially one that consists of what is more or less a single conversation, this is less forgivable.

The plot of “Homecoming” involves an elderly narrator whose small-minded superficiality estranges him from his son for many years and proves impervious to the pages of tedious argument that constitute most of the story only to be healed by a few sentences from his wife.  One might attempt to defend the story on the grounds that these few words are lent gravitas by being spoken during an unexpected and completely transient remission of the effects of Alzheimer’s, but the more one thinks about these circumstances the less believable they are.  That an Alzheimer’s sufferer would experience a brief moment of lucidity is credible, but that it would come at the exact moment it does smacks of authorial contrivance, and that it would involve the sufferer suddenly holding an opinion she evidently did not hold before the onset of the disease seems absurd.

All of this is in service to the daring moral message “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  The SFnal element, the idea that the narrator’s son has undergone an irreversible process that makes him appear to be a member of an alien species, is not developed enough to go any place new and, in any case, seems more dubious the longer one thinks about it.  It seems like a crude metaphor for racism, but viewed through this lens, the story is asking the important question: does making yourself look like a different race in order to study that race make you some sort of race traitor?  Spoiler alert: no.  The story does not attempt to deal with the somewhat more interesting question of whether or not there is even such a thing as, in the narrator’s words, “deserting your species”, nor the still more intriguing question of just what this business of dressing up as aliens to interact with them suggests about how humans view the aliens.  What would we think about white anthropologists donning blackface before going to visit an African village?

I don’t mean to imply that if the story can’t be related back to Important Themes, like modern struggles over racism, it can’t be good.  It’s worth mentioning that of the short stories nominated for a Hugo this year, this one is the most firmly situated within the genre.  Maybe that gives it a shot at winning?  There isn’t much discussion of this story online, but what I’ve seen suggests that other people (presumably to include the author, editor, and nominating voters) don’t find it so psychologically absurd as I do.

2011 Hugo Nominees: Short Stories

April 30, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments
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Thanks to a little-known rule requiring short stories to receive at least five percent of the nominations to make the shortlist, there were only four stories nominated this year. I think that’s probably indicative not of a decline in quality but the continued fragmentation of the short story market. Only one of the four stories was published by what was once the Big Three magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF). The other three come from online venues, two of which (Tor.com and Clarkesworld) pay more than the old guard do, at least at this length.

When doing this in the past I’ve just run down the stories, but this year I noticed a thematic connection between all four stories. It’s probably just a coincidence but all four, it seems to me, are in some way about coercion of individuals or small groups by a larger group. This isn’t the foremost idea in every story, but each at least has this as an element.

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn, published in Lightspeed Magazine, is set in what is by now the familiar confines of an energy-starved society. Instead of cities and spring power, however, the emphasis is on a small, sustainable community. The village employs what we would call oppressive rules to avoid depleting their fragile resource balance, restricting the amount the main characters can fish and even allowing reproduction only via rare permits.

It’s a nice enough story, but “Amaryllis” just doesn’t have enough substance for my taste. I feel bad criticizing stories like this, because the setting is interesting, the prose is good, and the characters are well done. Unlike many insubstantial mood pieces that have shown up in past shortlists, this even has a beginning and an end. The story employs a structure familiar from television, setting up an external conflict the characters must face while coming to grips with an internal conflict within the group. But both of these conflicts are resolved smoothly, without the characters really seeming to try very hard.

Although it’s my least favorite story of the four, I think it’s interesting to note that the characters in “Amaryllis” are happier than those in the other stories despite being at the lowest technology level and under arguably the most restrictions. They never question the justice of the rules that govern their society, merely the honesty with which they are enforced. But then, I guess it’s easier to be happy when the problems the author has set in your path are easily surmounted.

“Ponies” by Kij Johnson, published on Tor.com, is as different in feel from “Amaryllis” as you could imagine. This is a very short story about peer pressure. Like the protagonists of “Amaryllis”, Barbara doesn’t question the rules of the society she’s trying to live in, but in this case these are the rules not of reasoned government but of mean little girls. Maybe I’m stretching this too far to even say it’s like the others, but I think the fact children enforce these arbitrary rules is a useful reminder that not every regime is quite as reasoned and calculated as it claims to be.

I didn’t remember the author’s name nor did I recognize anything about the style, but just the emotion “Ponies” inspired was enough for me to guess (correctly) it was written by the author of “Spar”, nominated last year for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Like “Spar” this is an extremely effective story, and of the nominated stories it is by far the most successful at achieving its goals. I’m disappointed to see that writing about “Spar” about a year ago I said it was horror, not science fiction, because looking back I completely disagree. “Spar” was horrible, yes, but it was also an examination of the boundaries of human values as well as the difficulty, even futility, of understanding a truly alien being. Today I’d say it used the tools of horror to make a science fictional point. I can’t really say the same thing about “Ponies”. It feels a little more subtle than “Spar” in that it relies less on the shock value of words, but ultimately it’s making a simple point about human nature. The talking, flying unicorns are fantastic, but they aren’t treated that way in the story, and Johnson goes out of her way to tie the setting to our present. It’s also debatable whether “Ponies” has an interesting enough point to justify the distaste it so capably inspires in most readers.

“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal, originally published by Asimov’s, portrays another society that, like the village in “Amaryllis”, is severely resource constrained. This time, it’s because they live on a generation starship. Once again there are draconian laws to keep everything in balance. Unlike “Amaryllis”, however, there is a genuine conflict here. Someone has broken the rules and covered it up electronically, but Rava, an AI “wrangler”, stumbles on to the scheme and eventually discovers the truth.

I liked this story quite a bit and thought it was my favorite of the nominated stories when I had finished. It was a little odd that the difficult maintenance the protagonist performs on the AI involved plugging a cable into a hard to reach port, but overall the story has some interesting things to say about AI and forces the reader to consider whether or not the restrictions on the ship’s passengers are ethical or not.

Although by most definitions Peter Watts’ story The Things, published in Clarkesworld, is basically fan fiction of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1980) and/or the John W. Campbell story the movie was based on, Who Goes There, it also strikes me as the most original of the four stories. Alien viewpoints are difficult to achieve, but Watts does a good job placing us in the alien’s shoes and allowing us to understand its very different value system. In Watts’ interpretation, the alien is convinced humanity is broken, in pain, and in need of dramatic alterations. The alien feels it should inflict the cure on us, and in fact feels morally required to do so. Once again we have the idea of coercion, but this time from a completely external entity (representing, if its memories are accurate, a galaxy-spanning civilization) who sees humans as closer to cancer than what it considers life.

When I originally read this I liked the story but found it all a little predictable. Reading far more enthusiastic reviews since then left me thinking I was more down on the story than I actually was. I was going to say I thought “For Want of a Nail” was the best story, but after giving “The Things” a quick reread, I was less impressed by the last sentence but more satisfied by the story itself. Its ideas are as interesting as those in “For Want of a Nail” and it’s told with more style and novelty, so when it comes down to it I think “The Things” is the best story on the shortlist, even if I’m still not quite as big a fan of it as a lot of other people are.

“Lull” by Kelly Link

March 14, 2011 at 12:44 am | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments
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It’s been long enough since I last posted about Kelly Link’s anthology Magic For Beginners that it’s doubtful anyone remembers I was doing it. Well, I was, and finally I’m getting around to writing about “Lull”, the last story in the collection. Like everything except the title story, “Lull” is freely available in the collection’s electronic form from Kelly Link’s site.

The delay in getting to this story was, of course, mostly a matter of procrastination on my part, but there was another issue as well: my reaction to the story. Namely, I didn’t particularly like it. Now, if you read this blog very often you know I’m not shy about giving negative reviews when I don’t like something, and when it comes to short stories in particular I’ve long since accepted the fact that I just don’t like most of them. Kelly Link’s stories have been a different matter thus far, however, and with the possible exception of “The Cannon” I’ve liked every single story in Magic For Beginners. What really gave me pause, however, was the fact that when I first read “Magic For Beginners” I didn’t like it either, and my objections were similar to my problems with “Lull”. If I eventually changed my mind about that story, who’s to say I wouldn’t about this one as well? Even worse than that experience, when I first read “The Faery Handbag” I didn’t like the story and thought I understood it. In other words, I didn’t even get that I didn’t get it. Could the same thing be happening with “Lull”? It’s possible. But at this point, after several rereads months apart, I feel that if I don’t get it now I’m never going to get it.

So what’s this story about? Like “Magic For Beginners”, it’s a story of stories, with several different “levels” of story. But where “Magic For Beginners” was a story not just of stories but about stories, I believe “Lull” is about regret, or perhaps more specifically our relationship with the past. The men playing cards feel as though they have no place in the present and that something went wrong in their lives that has made them unable to realize their potential. Susan is so affected by the loss of her brother that she can only think about somehow getting him back. The journey of the woman in the innermost story back to the beginning of time is presented as a sort of rejuvenation, an undoing of her tangled life that will allow for something fresh and new. The Susan at the end of the story directly cites the immutability of the past as the source of the problems with her relationship with Ed.

The cheerleader’s backwards life might seem an answer to many of these concerns. And sure enough, the cheerleader doesn’t seem emotionally impacted by her parents’ death. Why should she, she hasn’t met them yet! But her life is one that is devoid of agency. The causal arrows of her world still point in the normal direction, so she cannot cause anything to happen. Wanting to have a good childhood before confronting her rather disturbing destiny of pre-birth non-existence, all she can do is appeal to the Devil for help.

This brings us to my problems with the story. If the cheerleader is living backwards, is she saying all her words backwards? In what sense is she alive at all? This is not the sort of story that is interested in technical questions of that kind, and I can with some effort suspend my disbelief on that count. There’s a much more fundamental problem, however, and that is the way the various levels of story within story interact with each other. Unlike in “Magic for Beginners”, where there was crossover that could be explained, the conceptual bleed between “Lull”‘s stories resists any attempt to rationalize them. Starlight doesn’t know Ed and Susan, but they show up in her story anyway, as does Ed’s strange house and even the men playing cards themselves. There are some details that might have pointed to some explanation, but again they don’t resolve: “Starlight” is surely an alias, and Ed actually calls her “Susan” once, but Susan works at SETI, not a phone service. The previous occupant of Ed’s house was apparently a Satanist, but how this meaningfully connects with the cheerleader’s story or anything else isn’t obvious (in a very positive article about the story, Jeffrey Ford, though not truly venturing an interpretation, cites as important the fact the Devil is the “Father of Time”…which still would not explain much if it were true, and isn’t true in any case).

In a recent review, Martin Lewis discussed how important plausibility is for the enjoyment of fiction, briefly in the main review but then at length with Adam Roberts in the comments. I don’t want to say that for me to enjoy a story like “Lull” it must not have the sort of loose ends I’ve described, if only because that sounds a little too much like the arguments of those who dismiss the entire fantasy genre. I think a reasonable test, along the lines of the one Martin applies to Picasso in those comments, is to ask whether or not the departure from realism serves an aesthetic purpose. In the case of “Lull” the issue is not so much “realism” as consistency. The fact these stories are connected in irrational ways is a constant distraction, at least for me, and what does this narrative discord have to do with the story’s theme? If all the story’s levels were flattened, their tenuous connections were removed, and they were presented one after another in a piece titled “Four Very Short Stories About Regret”, would something be lost?

My answers to these questions are “nothing” and “no”, and that’s why in the end I feel the story doesn’t work. The individual elements are all interesting and written with Link’s characteristic humor and deft characterization, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts, all of which are too short and simple to be satisfying stories when forced to stand on their own.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang

November 29, 2010 at 12:28 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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Today, most science fiction authors are known for their novels or not at all. Ted Chiang is one of the very few exceptions. His reputation has reached the point that when one of his stories appears on the Hugo ballot, he’s the favorite to win, but unlike authors of similar gravitas he achieved this without a popular novel, without a blog, and without saturating every available market with dozens of short stories a year. In his twenty year career he’s published twelve stories. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of writers who have more published stories to their name, but few have written as many great stories. Recently SF Signal asked a variety of people to contribute lists of stories for their idea of the “perfect short fiction anthology” and while it wasn’t surprising that Chiang was frequently mentioned, what impressed me was how each person mentioning him picked a different story.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is Chiang’s twelfth and most recent story. At just over 30,000 words (about one third as long as a typical novel) it’s also his longest by a fair margin. It was originally published as a book by Subterranean Press, but it was reprinted in their online magazine after selling out and so can be read online.

Most of Chiang’s work has struggled with the question of humanity’s role in the universe. Sometimes, as in “Tower of Babylon”, “Seventy-Two Letters”, and “Hell Is the Absence of God” he has explored this by writing stories about the ramifications of religious ideas. He has also considered what the implications of a cold and deterministic universe are in stories like “Understand”, “Story of Your Life”, “What’s Expected of Us”, and “Exhalation”. One of the reasons I consider “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” Chiang’s best work is that in that story he manages to consider the question from those two angles at the same time.

In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” Chiang turns to consider the place of artificial intelligence in a human world. The struggle of something other to integrate into society has a very long history in science fiction, going back at least to A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, but in that work as well as more recent examples like Daniel Keys Moran’s Emerald Eyes and Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain it’s assumed that society will be frightened and hostile. Chiang is one of a comparative few (M.A. Foster’s Gameplayers of Zan is the only other example that’s coming to mind, and it’s not a perfect fit either) to predict a different response: apathy.

Chiang’s AIs, to which his applies the unlikely term “digient” (a word both unsightly on the page and difficult to say), are created by a tech startup to make money, and when the money dries up so does people’s interest. The idea of AIs as virtual pets is a pretty simple step from precents like Tamagotchi and The Sims, but in terms of sophistication digients represent a difference of many orders of magnitude. They learn from their experiences and can even acquire speech.

True to the title, the story charts a particular brand of digients from their creation as a product through a burst of faddish popularity into decline and obsolescence. Two employees of the company that created them, Ana and Derek, theoretically serve as main characters, but in fact most events are simply related directly in the third person narration. Although there’s a very low intensity kind-of romance between Ana and Derek, this is a science fiction story very much of the old mode. The reader is expected to be primarily interested in it as a meditation on AI and society’s attempts to integrate it and the story is balanced accordingly.

Though I appreciated most of Chiang’s extrapolation, I didn’t quite buy one technical aspect that unfortunately was extremely important to the plot. The story’s digients were created as programs that run on Data Earth, a virtual reality environment along the lines of today’s Second Life. When the Data Earth platform becomes obsolete, it’s an existential crisis, because although the digients can continue to live on a private instance of Data Earth they are cut off from wider Internet society, which has moved on to a different platform called Real Space. Unless their code is ported to run on Real Space, we are told, they can’t use it. This is, I’m sorry to say, pretty unbelievable. Why not just connect to it from their private instance of Data Earth and use avatars like everyone else? They can’t, the story says, because “the keyboard and screen are a miserable substitute for being there, as unsatisfying as a jungle videogame would be to a chimpanzee taken from the Congo.” It’s been four years since the release of the Nintendo Wii. By the time we have consumer AIs that can talk, are we going to be interacting with virtual environments with keyboards? And while something a little more immersive than a screen hasn’t quite made it to the market yet, a decent head mounted display or at least display wall seems also likely to beat AI to the hands of consumers.

More broadly, I wasn’t very convinced with Chiang’s speculations about how society would conceive of digient rights. In the story, digients have the same rights that people in The Sims do today. That is, zero.

Artificial-life hobbyists all agree on the impossibility of digients ever getting legal protection as a class, citing dogs as an example: human compassion for dogs is both deep and wide, but the euthanasia of dogs in pet shelters amounts to an ongoing canine holocaust, and if the courts haven’t put a stop to that, they certainly aren’t going to grant protection to entities that lack a heartbeat.

First of all, dogs actually have certain legal protections from cruelty which digients would apparently benefit from, since in the story depraved people broadcast records of them being tortured. Second, digient intelligence is farther above dogs than ours is above that of the digients. For most of the story, digients as intellects are compared with apes: capable of using tools and basic communication, but categorically below that of humans. This is initially persuasive but falls apart on even basic examination, for digients are in fact dramatically more intelligent than apes.

How much more intelligent? You’d expect some quantitative assessment. IQ goes unmentioned, presumably because of its increasingly bad reputation as a measure, but even more accepted metrics like vocabulary size, mathematical achievement, and reading level are not discussed. However, from the story the facts are: digients can speak, they can make logical inferences, they can read, and they can write well enough that on forums they can pass for adolescents.

Ultimately it’s a judgment call as to how society would react to AI capable of these feats. For me, I can accept a future in which they have no rights, but not one in which this wouldn’t at least cause an enormous controversy. There’s a religious argument against them, but even there I would expect to see religious people on each side. Meanwhile, if a near-future story expects me to believe the developed world would horribly persecute a minority, I demand that it pass what I think of as the Oprah test. I originally up with this in relation to the short story “The Cage”, and while I didn’t mention it in my comments on that story, it goes like this: would someone from this minority be able to go on Oprah and effectively plead their case? In “The Cage” I felt the werewolf baby’s sobbing mother would make a great Oprah episode, and here we have cute, childlike AIs that aren’t in the slightest bit dangerous. It’s not that everyone around the world would be convinced by this kind of appeal, just that more than enough would be to fight a long and powerful battle in the court of public opinion, regardless of the final verdict.

Although I don’t agree with some of Chiang’s vision, there’s no question it’s a novella that’s more thought provoking than most science fiction novels. As a story, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” with its told-not-shown narrative and its half-hearted characterization isn’t really that impressive. As a meditation on AI and society, however, it’s definitely worth your time to read.

“Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker

November 21, 2010 at 12:37 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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The final short story club story is “Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. As usual, I found a lot of things to dislike about this week’s story. This is a story about a society with inverted gender roles, but the story feels like it was written about a woman in a male dominated society, then had all gender references inverted in revision. Certainly it doesn’t read any differently than its opposite, except perhaps to readers so new to the genre that they haven’t encountered a story challenging gender roles before. The story finally approaches interesting territory as the narrator is given a transient female body via magic, but the author seems like she’s in a hurry to reach the ending by this point and nothing much is done with it. As for the story’s plot, very little actually happens, and the story ends with the narrator doing exactly what he intended at the beginning, just a little faster than expected. I guess there’s nothing wrong with mood pieces and character sketches (this story could be called either or both) but I prefer stories with more things happening.

But…but…all that said, I found myself won over to large degree upon finishing the story. Nothing about the writing jumped out at me as really superlative, but as a whole I was impressed with the execution: the slimy, amphibian true form of the goblin, the narrator’s hatred for his own body, the way the goblin’s chaos infects and destroys the narrator’s life in a way that he observes but doesn’t see as important, and then the implication that the goblin is here acting as an agent of Ru, the very goddess in whose name the matriarchs suppress the men in their society. These elements weren’t enough to turn this story into one more to my particular tastes, but they did make it unexpectedly enjoyable to read.

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